Judaism and Science A Forum on Fact, Fiction and Faith 2016-10-17T17:35:03Z http://www.judaismandscience.com/feed/atom/ Roger Price <![CDATA[When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=699 2016-10-05T18:41:46Z 2016-10-05T18:41:46Z That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew. 

Then there is the argument based on ritual: the droid cannot be circumcised. This objection is premised on the recognition, early in the Torah text, that male circumcision is a sign of membership in a covenanted community. (See Gen. 17: 9-14.) Putting aside the obvious counter that the droid could be a fembot, that is, a humanoid robot gendered feminine, this argument cannot withstand scrutiny.

The contention seems to assume that our droid would not be formed as an outwardly anatomically correct human male, but there is no engineering impediment to doing so. In the movie, A.I., Artificial Intelligence, Gigolo Joe, one of the humanoids, was designed and apparently functioned completely and very well as a male lover. There is no obvious reason why our droid could not be similarly formed, or even provided initially with a section of synthetic skin which could be removed.

Even if he were formed somewhat less than anatomically correct from a human viewpoint, as Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a Senior Lecturer at Emory Law School, suggests, he could still be accepted under the halakhik principle of nolad mahul, because he could be considered to have been formed “pre-circumcised.” Indeed, there is precedent for the belief in some traditional circles that a number of major biblical figures were born pre-circumcised, starting with the first fully formed man, Adam (Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel, notwithstanding), and including Moses and Jacob. They further view the pre-circumcised condition to reflect perfection. Consequently, the argument from ritual should not bar our humanoid from being considered Jewish.

A third objection is the argument based on descent: our droid would not have a Jewish mother. It is true, of course, that the Jewdroid would not be born of a Jewish mother in a conventional, biological sense, and it is also true that since the Mishnaic Period, Jewish identity has, for the most part, been transmitted to a child by its mother. Conversely, according to Shaye J. D. Cohen, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard, it is also true that before the Mishna, one’s Jewish identity was determined not by the mother but by the father. The reasons for the transition are not clear, but the argument for matrilineal descent is one that is grounded on a custom developed in response to unique circumstances, ones which may no longer be particularly pressing, or even relevant, today. In fact, different social challenges in the United States over recent decades have led the Reconstructionist and Reform movements to accept conditional patrilineality, meaning recognition of a child as Jewish where the child’s father, but not mother, is Jewish and where, in the phrasing of the Reform rabbis, there are accompanying “public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” Today, though not everywhere, not having a Jewish biological mother does not preclude one from being Jewish.

Perhaps more importantly, if our Jewdroid is an adult, well established, and diverse, processes for conversion of individuals provide models for acceptance without biological Jewish ancestry. (See also, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) These approaches involve issues both of personal identity and communal status. Once the conversion is complete, though, at least within the denomination in which it takes place, the convert is to be treated as no less a Jew than one born into the community. S/he is to be welcomed and embraced. If our Jewdroid commits to living a Jewish life, through study and action, he would seem to qualify for Jewish status by conversion, if not otherwise.

A fourth argument, again similar to one raised against the Bulbas, acknowledges that while Jews may have different physical appearances and come to their Judaism other than through biological descent, at least Jews must be human. This is the argument based on species.

In relying on a biological classification, however, the objectors display a cramped understanding both of the reality of the evolution of modern humans, i.e., homo sapiens, and the possibility of other life forms in the cosmos. The authors of the origin stories in Genesis surely understood humankind to be the pinnacle for God’s creation. What they did not know, and could not have known, but what we know quite well today, is that the first humans were neither created fully-formed nor fashioned from the dust of the Earth, nor, in the female’s case fashioned from a rib of the male. (Compare Gen. 1:27, 2:7, 22.) Rather, our species evolved, slowly, over time, finally emerging just two to three million years ago. While this seems like a distant period, if we imagine the history of our planet as occurring over the course of twenty-four hours, mankind did not arrive until one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.

Looking inward, there is no reason to place special value on our species simply because of its relatively recent arrival in a multi-billion year evolutionary chain. To the contrary, other species have been around much longer and could make a reasonable claim to supremacy through proven adaptability and survival. Humans have surely developed and refined skills such as communication and tool usage to a greater extent than have other creatures, but we have not yet demonstrated our ability to survive for long nor even to care of our home planet.

Looking outward, as we have previously recognized on this site, Rabbi Norman Lamm , long time Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York, once considered man’s place in a universe with the potential for extra-terrestrial life. While he agreed that Judaism has seen mankind as the purpose of creation, and man made in the image of God, he also believed that “there is nothing in . . . the Biblical doctrine per se . . . that insists upon man’s singularity.” (See Lamm, Faith and Doubt (KTAV 1971), at 99, 128.) Eschewing speciesism, he wrote, “Judaism can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world.” (Id. at 133.)

What we learn from our broader perspective about our place in the cosmos is that we and indeed everyone and everything on this planet owe our existence to the same source. We and all else are made of stardust, the product of explosions of supernovae billions of years ago. Whether we are carbon based and naturally born or silicone based and manufactured, we are cosmological cousins, distant and removed by history, but bound nevertheless to the ultimate origin of all. Consequently, as author Arthur C.  Clarke has written, “(w)hether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.”

The most fundamental objection to the Jewishness of our droid is theological: the droid is not made in the image of God. The biblical story of origins is quite emphatic that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. They are the last listed in the litany of creatures which were made to live in our world, and they are charged to have dominion over all other animals, on land, in the air and in the sea. (See Gen. 1:26.) And if that is not clear enough, they are told to fill the earth with offspring, to subdue it, to take all seed bearing plants, all fruit bearing trees, indeed, all green plants for food.  (See Gen. 1:28-30.)

Even greater than the commands to reproduce and to use other living creatures for their benefit, is the essential nature of the human. According to Genesis, by way of Everett Fox’s translation, God said “Let us make humankind, in our image, according to our likeness!” To emphasize this particular decision, the text shifts from prose to poetry, as it describes God’s ultimate work in the first week of creation:

God created humankind in his image,

In the image of God did he create it,

Male and female did he create them.

The poem is essentially repeated several chapters later at the beginning of the genealogy of the line of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. (See Gen. 5:1-2.)

The text could not be more clear in elevating the stature of humans to that of the creator God, yet the meaning of the phrase “image of God” is not so obvious.  Part of the resolution of the puzzle depends on the time period we are considering. According to the late Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Rabbi Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), “(t)here is no doubt that the original signification of this expression in the Canaanite tongue was . . . corporeal, in accordance with the anthropomorphic conception of the godhead among the people of the ancient East.”  (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Varda 2005), at 56.) The late Rabbi Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was more specific in the original edition of his Torah commentary (The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UAHC  1981), at 22). There he states that the Hebrew word for image, tzelem, is related to the Akkadian salmu, which “applied specifically to divine statues in human guise.”  Similarly, Professor Leon Kass holds that the root of tzelem means to cut off or chisel, as from a statue, indicating a physical resemblance. (See Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, (Free Press 2003), at 37.)

Moreover, as noted above, when Seth is born, the narrative echoes the previous text: “Adam . . . begot one in his likeness, according to his image . . . .” (Gen. 5:3.) This is completely understandable. What would we expect, other than our children would look like us? So the concept that humans are shaped like God, and, conversely, that God is shaped like humans, seems a quite plausible projection within an anthropocentric framework of the origin of the world and the place of humans in it.

Yet, if familiar external physical features are crucial, then any objection to a Jewdroid based on an anthropomorphic image of God surely fails. If Adam looked like God, and Seth looked like Adam, and our Jewdroid looks like the descendants of Seth, then it must pass the image test.

Belief in the corporeality of God, that God has a figure and shape, changed over time, but it persisted into the Middle Ages. It was taken seriously enough, and apparently was prevalent enough, that the Spanish born rabbi philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known more familiarly as Maimonides  or Rambam (1135-1204) opened  his major work, The Guide for the Perplexed, with a refutation of the idea. He argued that in Hebrew there was a word for form other than tzelem, and that tzelem really meant the essential and distinctive quality of a human, his intellectual perception. (See The Guide for the Perplexed  (Friedlander trans. Cosimo 2007), Ch. 1, at 13-14.)

Maimonides further recognized that the capacity to learn and reason differs from one person to another (Ch. 17, at 288-89), and that there were four finds of wisdom, one involving cunning, another with the acquisition of moral principles, a third with workmanship and, most importantly, the “knowledge of those truths which lead to the knowledge of God.” (Ch. 54, at 393.) Man will attain true perfection, he said, when the knowledge of God’s ways and attributes leads man to commit “always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (Ch. 54, at 397.)

Professor Kass, like Maimonides, argues that “image” involves more than mere physical resemblance. He wants to understand how man could be more godlike, aside from appearance, and looks at God’s activities and powers as described in Genesis. Among other attributes, he finds that God “exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment and care.” (Kass, above, at 38.)

We could argue, at length and depth, about whether the academic line from Maimonides to Kass concerning God’s essential attributes is either complete or valid. Everyone from biological anthropologists to philosophers has an opinion. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, referrencing the movie A.I.,  argues that the uniqueness of humanity lies not in intelligence, but “in loving and being loved.”  We will defer diving into that pool. What is important for now is that if the identified attributes are descriptors of being made in the “image of God,” then our postulated droid, who would be created intelligent and learned and thoughtful and compassionate, would seem to qualify.

How then, could our Jewishly knowledgeable and committed droid not be considered Jewish? And how then, if he is, could he not receive a Jewish name, celebrate his bot mitzvah, be counted in a minyan and serve on the shul board?

In his reported responses during an interview with JTA, Rabbi Goldfeder appears to take a contextual approach to the sufficiency of evidence for the hypothetical robot who walks into his office and wants to be counted in a minyan. The rabbi is quoted as saying that such an event would “(n)ot necessarily” provide enough evidence for him, but adds “(w)hen something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.”  Moreover, he believes this tentative conclusion is supported by a Jewish ethical perspective.

Rabbi Goldfeder also stressed that he was engaging in a “theoretical outlaying of views.” That qualification did not impress Rabbi Moshe Taub, an Orthodox rabbi, who literally summoned seven pages filled with chapters and verses to attack Rabbi Goldfeder’s views as “bizarre and misguided.” This, in turn, prompted a reply from Rabbi Goldfeder, which included the statement that “(o)bviously I am not of the opinion that a robot can actually count in a minyan . . . ,” but no exposition as to why the threshold could not be crossed.

For all his citations and quotations, Rabbi Taub’s position is quite simple: the robot may not be part of a minyan because it is neither human, nor male nor Jewish. This approach would, of course, also bar women from being counted in a minyan. So, it’s not just robots whose participation Rabbi Taub would prohibit. Women need not apply either. Presumably, he would preclude the robot from reading Torah at a bot mitzvah, just as he would ban a female from reading Torah at her bat mitzvah. It is a defensible position, in the sense that it is based on thousands of years of tradition, but it is also a position that, in the United States, at least, has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

The failure of the argument is not that it lacks historic grounding, but that it is uniquely devoid both of imagination and pragmatism. The first failure is ironic given the fertile musings and considerable ingenuity of the sages upon whose stories and views Rabbi Taub relies. The second failure is neither sensitive to, nor sensible for, most Jews today. To the contrary, it is rather stifling. In Rabbi Taub’s insular world, his approach may work, even work well.  In the world most Jews occupy today, as the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) is said to have taught, the Jewish tradition has a voice, but not a veto. And Jewish rules and rituals should function primarily to benefit the Jewish People, not the converse. When they fail to do so, they must be reevaluated and even discarded.

We are not yet at the point when a learned and committed Jewdroid is going to walk into a rabbi’s office and asked to be counted. But we are, as Yuval Noah Harari has written, already in “a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology.” (Harari, Sapiens (Harper 2015) at 409.) So that day is coming, maybe within a generation, and we need to be prepared. We have all listened as a soon-to-drop-out-of Hebrew-school  teenager stumbles through a reading of the weekly parasha and gives a less than enthusiastic or challenging d’var. We have all seen the leader of a minyan scramble to find the tenth person to fill the required quorum. We have all encountered synagogues with inattentive, unproductive and bored Board members and search committees futilely looking for “someone else” to carry the load. Don’t we need to think more than reflexively about whether our Jewdroid can become a contributing part of our community?

A passage in the Talmud, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer the Great, asserts that there are literally dozens of decrees in Torah calling on us not just negatively to avoid oppressing the stranger, but also affirmatively to treat the stranger with respect. (See, e.g., Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18-19.) The Jewdroid of the future can be both capable and qualified to function constructively within the Jewish community. How shall we greet, how shall we treat him when he walks in the door? Whatever we do, the most important thing, according to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) is “not to be afraid”.

Roger Price <![CDATA[When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=696 2016-10-17T17:35:03Z 2016-09-28T15:49:20Z In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be? 

Of course, the idea of artificial beings has been with us for millennia, originally in the form of ancient myths and musings from numerous disparate communities, including what are now India, Greece, Scandinavia and China. Subsequently, efforts were made to fashion the imagined characters. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), for instance, produced sketches of mechanical knights in armor.

In order to protect his sixteenth century community, Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1513-1609), the Maharal of Prague, reportedly created an artificial being from clay and brought it to life by invoking God’s name. Subsequently, this being, this Golem, caused trouble and Rabbi Loew had to put it to rest. But the Maharal was not the first Jew alleged to have formed a human-like being. A passage in the Talmud states that Rabbah created a “man” and sent him to Rav Zera who spoke to him but received no answer. Talmud being Talmud, the passage is somewhat obscure and may have been intended as metaphor, though the great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) seems to have treated it as true and attributed the creation to a mystical invocation of God’s name. Either way, clearly the writer envisioned the creation by a human of a “man.” (See Sanhedrin 65b.)

Modern humanoid robots, indeed, the word robot itself, trace to the Czech author Karel Capek’s 1921 drama R.U.R, which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word robot is, in fact, an English variant on the Czech robota, meaning forced labor. Since R.U.R., robots have become a fixture in popular art forms like short stories, novels, movies, radio and television.  In the 1960s, for instance, Rosie served as a maid in The Jetsons, a popular animated television show, and the robot from Lost in Space, another television series, was an important part of the spaceship crew. Subsequently, the portrayals have been more varied and textured.

As seen in the Star Wars movie saga, at a time long ago, in a distant galaxy, far, far away, an autonomous droid identified as C3PO, with the size and somewhat of the shape of an adult human, could, among other attributes, translate over seven million forms of communication and assist in matters of protocol and etiquette.  Set a thousand years into the future, another clearly mechanical character with humanoid features, Bender Bending Rodriguez, Sr., aka Bender, stars in the animated television sitcom Futurama as one who was trained as a metal bender, but works for a cargo delivery service, and is prone to drinking, smoking cigars, and womanizing with both humans and female robots.  In the computer animated movie, WALL-E, the last robot on unpopulated Earth, is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth class, who after centuries of being alone, notices an attractive probe-bot named EVE and adventure ensues.

For all their charm, though, with their mechanical heads and other appendages, C3PO, Bender and Wall-E, are each distinctly not human. By stark contrast,  Lt. Commander Data, from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and David, from the movie A.I., Artificial Intelligence, look like us. They have their quirks (don’t we all), but if you did not know they were not natural born and carbon based, that their insides consisted of chips and circuits, with silicone everywhere, you would not have guessed.

Both would have passed the Turing Test, an evaluation of machine intelligence in which a subject is asked a series of questions by a judge who is seeking to determine whether the subject is human. If the subject has been programmed sufficiently, then the judge will not be able to distinguish the machine with artificial intelligence from a real human. In other words, the subject would pass the Turing Test.

The movie Ex Machina provides a twist to the Turing test. As the Turing Test was originally designed, the interrogator would pose questions in writing to two subjects, one being human and one not. Both would then respond in writing. In this way, the interrogator’s decision about the subject’s ability to think like a human would not be biased by either visible or aural clues as to the true nature of the subject.  In Ex Machina, however, Ava’s artificial composition is not hidden. Through her transparent neck, torso and limbs, many of her internal components are plainly visible. Nor is her ability to think and move like a human in any doubt from the first time that a computer programmer named Caleb, playing the role of interrogator, sees her through a glass partition. Rather, a primary question posed by the meetings of Caleb and Ava, a physically attractive android, is whether one or both would be as emotionally drawn to the other as humans might be.

Not surprisingly, life is imitating art and the age of the robots is, in fact, rapidly approaching. In 2000, Honda introduced ASIMO, a mobile android. The current version has facial, voice and posture recognition capabilities, can communicate with humans, and not only walks, but also runs. Not to be outdone, in 2007 Toyota produced a violin playing robot which displayed such sufficient arm strength and hand dexterity that it could play a violin and even achieve, Toyota claimed, vibrato similar to that accomplished by humans. Other humanoid robots can be seen here.

Robots have, in fact, proven capable of engaging successfully in a wide range of activities. NASA has sent a robot, or, more accurately, a robonaut into space on a shuttle mission, and claims that its Robonaut 2 series has dexterous hand movement “approaching” that of a human. NASA also plans to send a Robonaut 5, aka Valkyrie, to help explore Mars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, nurse robots have been deployed to assist elderly patients, and greater usage has been planned. Knightscope robots have been placed in service recently as security guards in parking lots, corporate headquarters and other facilities, with the ability to record, store and send video, read license plates, and, through thermal imaging, locate humans in restricted areas. Two years ago, at the Jewish Museum Berlin, a robot demonstrated that it could write a Torah scroll, all 260 feet of it, flawlessly.

Physical agility is impressive, of course, as are recognition technologies, but can a robot think both strategically and tactically? In the last two decades, two exercises demonstrated the power of artificial intelligence. In 1996 and 1997, the reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov battled an IBM computer named Deep Blue. Kasparov won the first match (4-2), but lost the second (3.5-2.5). Kasparov’s defeat was subsequently rationalized as the result of his bad play or the limited intellectual challenge of chess itself, but the fact remains that Deep Blue for the first time beat a human champion in a difficult contest.

The ancient game of Go, while deceptively simple to learn, is considerably more complex than is chess. The game is played on a board filled with squares, nineteen across and nineteen down. Players, one with black stones and one with white, place their stones at the intersections on the board, the object being to surround and capture the opponent’s stone and thereby control more territory. As there are 361 intersections on the board, one player starts with 181 stones and the other begins with 180, and the number of possible board positions is incredibly large. In fact, that number was only determined this year and approximates 10170 positions, far more than the number of atoms in the universe.

In March, 2016, artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol  (4-1). Created by DeepMind and acquired by Google, AlphaGo was programmed to learn from mistakes and teach itself how to succeed. This victory was extraordinarily significant. It demonstrated more than mere computing strength, and displayed the state of “deep learning,” a form of artificial intelligence architecture which, in a rudimentary way, mimics human neural networks and allows a machine to learn by observation, data collection and analysis, in other words, like humans do.

At the same time, while AlphaGo was surprisingly successful, artificial neural networks are still “about a million times smaller than the brain,” with its 1,000 trillion neuron connections, or synapses. Consequently, although it would be hyperbolic to say that the future of artificial intelligence is unlimited, the prospects envisioned even now are truly stunning. (See, e.g., here, here and here.)

Advances in robotics, in mobility, dexterity and intelligence, are raising the question about what it means to be human and Jewish. To our more parochial concern, if a robot can play the violin, compete a high level at chess and write a Torah scroll, why can’t a robot be Jewish?  Assume that the android looks human, is at least as mobile as ASIMO, and is thoroughly familiar not only with Jewish foundational texts like the Torah, the rest of the Tanakh and the Talmud, but also all that followed, up to and including today’s Jewish literature and philosophies. Assume further that it has a complete grasp of Jewish history from its roots in the first millennia B.C.E. through the demographics of various resulting Jewish communities today. Why can’t that droid be Jewish?  Why can’t it have a Jewish name, like Enosh ben Yehuda v’Rut, be called to read as a bot mitzvah, be counted in a minyan and sit on a shul board?

Objections to a Jewdroid are numerous, ranging from the silly to the sacred.  They include arguments based on appearance, on ritual, on descent, on speciesism and on foundational philosophy.  So, shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger?  We’ll consider the arguments in our next installment.


Herb Cooper-Levy <![CDATA[Kol Echad is the Singularity]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=690 2016-08-30T15:46:09Z 2016-08-30T15:46:09Z We weren’t just at Sinai


We weren’t just at Sinai.

We were there at Tsimtsum, at B’reishit.

When Elohim emerged

As the heavens and the Earth.

We were the nothing that became


Every thing

Every every

We were the dust and the firmament.

We were the waters below and the waters above.

We shaped into plants and animals.

We grew into the Earth: Adome:

Adam and Chavah.

We rested and we continued to change.

We were Creation.

We still are.





Physics’ great quest

the unified field theory,

a force that connects the four forces into one.


Gravity’s the force that describes one object’s attraction for a second object.

Another name for that is love.


When that attraction is strong, electromagnetism holds atoms together,

preventing one object from crashing through the second one

so dominating it as to destroy it.

Another name for that is love.


Electromagnetism tells us

protons should repel each other and the atom’s nucleus should fly apart;

but there’s something stronger than electromagnetism,

stronger than gravity,

the strong force keeping atoms connected.

Another name for that is love.


Neutrons change into protons and electrons, and make nuclear fusion possible,

make stars possible,

make life possible.

Physicists call that the weak force.

I call it love.


Search for the unified field no longer

Love connects the four forces into one,

just as it connects us into one.



Before the forever connection


Before the forever connection,

before there was two,

before the birth of stars,

before the firmament and the floods and the flowers,

before fin and fur,

before the need to rest,


before there was a before,


I am becoming.


What I am has always been,

the constant exchange between

these atoms


these waves,


intent and consciousness

always a part

of this Eternal Now.



I knew

I am One,

A little piece of the One

Infinite Becoming.


After the finish of flesh

after the death of rock and sky and light

I am

still a little piece of Infinite Being.



Rosh Hashanah


the first streak of orange

arrives on top of the pines

reflects on the lake

mirrored blue, black, still

a soft cool breeze wakes me

to the endless possibilities

It’s a new day.

It always has been.



We are the ocean


We are the ocean,

But for a short time

We are the wave.

Honor the ride.


We are the air.

But for a short time

We are the wind.

Honor the gust.


We are fire,

But for a short time

We flame.

Honor the spark.


We are the earth.

But for a short time

We flower.

Honor the bloom.


We are a small piece of the One,

But for a short time

We are.

Cherish that time.


Herb Cooper-Levy is the Executive Director of FocusMusic, a nonprofit presenter of folk and acoustic music in Washington, D.C. He also serves as Community Coordinator for Kol Ami, the Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community. This past summer, Mr. Cooper-Levy was a part of Hevreh: A Community of Adult Jewish Learners.

This is the first time that Judaism and Science has offered a collection of poetry. As the month of Elul nears, and we begin a period of introspection, we are pleased to be able to provide another approach to the exploration of fact, fiction and faith from the Jewish perspective.

Roger Price <![CDATA[An Ark is a Terrible Thing to Waste]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=685 2016-07-29T19:47:29Z 2016-07-29T19:47:29Z Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky that invites you to “witness history,” to participate in a “life-sized Noah’s Ark experience” and to “be amazed,” all for the single day price of $40 per adult and $28 for children over 5 years of age. Seniors get a discount. Parking pass not included. Combination rates are available if you also want to go to Ark Encounter’s “sister attraction,” the Creation Museum, just north in Petersburg, Kentucky.

The underlying premise of the Ark Museum is that beside “the Cross, the Ark of Noah is one of the greatest reminders we have of salvation.” The reference, of course, is to the biblical story of a massive, worldwide encompassing flood which destroyed all human and other land based animal life on Earth, save that of a man named Noah, his family and such animals as he was able to collect and maintain on an enormous ship, the Ark, which rode the flooded seas for an extended period. (See generally, Gen. 6:9-9:29.) Ark Encounter considers the story of Noah’s Ark to be “true,” that is, an “historical account recorded for us in the Bible.”

For young earth creationists, like the proponents of Ark Encounter, history dates back to, and only to, about 6000 years ago, when, they believe, God created heaven and earth. Based on the genealogies in Genesis, the flood began when Noah was 600 years old, in the year 1656 AC (After Creation). Following the reckoning of Irish Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th Century as to the date of creation, this equates to 2348 BCE (Before the Common Era). The traditional Jewish calculation of the date of creation is somewhat different, occurring 3761/3760 years before the start of the Common Era, with the flood commencing 1656 years later, or about 2105 BCE.

Ark Encounter claims that it has built a timber frame Ark “according to the dimensions given in the Bible,” more specifically, “(s)panning 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high . . . .” (See Gen. 6:15.) It also promises “jaw dropping exhibits inside the Ark,” where visitors can see models of the animals, including dinosaurs, Ark Encounter asserts were taken by Noah on his voyage.

An analysis undertaken twenty years evaluated major safety parameters and concluded that a floating ship of biblical dimensions would have been seaworthy. Maybe. Without question, though, building a wooden ship the length of one and a half football fields, and seven stories high is quite a feat.

Yet if Ark Encounter’s engineering and construction skills are impressive, its understanding of the biblical story of Noah is less so. In fact, to sustain its undertaking, Ark Encounter has had to purposely ignore the Mesopotamian antecedents of the biblical flood story, reject a consensus among modern academics that the Noah story as contained in contemporary bibles is really a combined and edited version of two quite separate and, in key locations, contradictory stories, and avoid what current science teaches. Ark Encounter, in short, can only sail on a sea of denial.

The Cultural Antecedents for Noah

Ark Encounter recognizes that many cultures, over 200 by its count, have flood stories. That there are myriad stories from every corner of the globe is essentially correct, and flood stories from around the world can now be easily accessed. On its website, however, Ark Encounter discusses only a few of these, and then in a cursory fashion, taking the position that the only “true account” is the one found in the Bible. At the same time, it contends that the existence of so many flood stories “point(s) to a universal truth – there was a worldwide flood in the ancient past.” The argument doesn’t hold water, though. The variety of detail in these stories is so extensive, and the dating, such as it is, so inconsistent, that collectively the vast number of stories refutes the notion that there was one global deluge.

Conversely, there is at least one nation that apparently has no flood story. Surprisingly, given its history and geography as an archipelago, that nation is Japan. Rather than invent or adopt such a story, some Japanese argue that the absence of a flood tradition demonstrates Japan’s uniqueness and superiority to other nations, as Japan alone seems to have existed on a higher plain than other nations, spiritually and physically, and, so, has been spared from an otherwise worldwide destructive event.

Ark Encounter’s failure to address the flood stories of one particular region is especially disingenuous. As Rutgers professor of Jewish history Gary Rendsburg points out, the “only geographical location mentioned in the biblical account is the mountains of Ararat, which are located in . . . modern-day eastern Turkey . . . near the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.” (Rendsburg, Lecture 7 (at 37/203), see Gen. 8:4.) This is in the northern region of the ancient territory of Mesopotamia, literally the land between the rivers. Similarly, the biblical stories that follow the flood account – the Tower of Babel saga and the journey of Abram’s family – are also rooted along the Euphrates and throughout Mesopotamia. (See Gen. 10:10, 11:1-9, 11:31; see also, Josh. 24:2.)

Mesopotamia, in stark contrast to Canaan, the land ancient Israelites later claimed to be promised to them, is prone to flooding. The Mesopotamian plain receives ample rainfall and both the Tigris and Euphrates overflow their banks with regularity. Canaan benefits from no similar experience. So, it would not be surprising if the land of frequent flooding also was the source of flood stories, and, indeed, that is the case.

Perhaps the most famous of these Mesopotamian stories was discovered less than a century and a half ago when the remarkable George Smith, a young printer by trade and largely self-trained archaeologist, was working on a collection of cuneiform tablets at The British Museum in London. In 1872, Smith succeeded in translating a portion of the eleventh of twelve tablets that make up the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, King of the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Smith subsequently deciphered the entire flood story within the Gilgamesh Epic.

The flood story Smith uncovered was written about 3,200 years ago. Tablet XI tells of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality when he learned of Utnapishtim, who survived a massive flood and was awarded immortality by the gods. Ark Encounter’s website acknowledges the Epic of Gilgamesh, but avoids any serious analysis of it, characterizing the saga as “clearly fiction” and a “myth.” In fact, the Noah story appears to incorporate not only the general theme of Utnapishtim’s tale, but also its structure, its details, its phrasing and, especially tellingly, a particular word.

In both stories, there is a divinely ordained flood (which covers the entire earth), a ship serves as a sanctuary for a selected group of humans and certain animals, the ship is built with wood and pitch is used to provide waterproofing. Eventually the ship comes to rest on a mountain top, birds are then sent forth sequentially to determine whether the flood has ended and dry land is again available for occupation, the inhabitants of the ship are released, a sacrifice is offered and the smell of the burnt offering is found pleasing by the divine power(s).

As Prof. Rendsburg teaches, while one could tell essentially the same story with considerable variation, the version found in Genesis maintains many of the key elements in the same order as they are found in the Gilgamesh epic. Even the order of the references to materials, dimensions and decks on the ship is the same. There are differences, of course, large and small. For instance, the theological assumptions expressed and the rewards granted the hero are quite dissimilar. Moreover, the boat in the Noah story is shaped differently than Utnapishtim’s vessel, and it is smaller with fewer decks. Still, the similarities are striking.

Two unique non-Israelite pieces of evidence seem to confirm Gilgamesh Tablet XI as a prior source of the biblical account. Yeshiva Associate Professor Shalom E. Holtz notes, the word for pitch in the Noah story is kofer, the “cognate to Akkadian kupru, which is what Utnapishtim uses.” By comparison, Holtz observes, the word used for the pitch that waterproofed the container in which the baby Moses was placed was a native Hebrew word, zefet. (See Ex. 2:3.) Holtz concludes that kofer was “borrowed directly from Akkadian, and provides the strongest evidence for the Mesopotamian origin of the (Noah story).”

Further, after Noah sacrifices to YHWH, YHWH reportedly “smelled the pleasing odor.” (See Gen. 8: 21.) This, Prof. Rendsburg teaches, is the only time among the many biblical references to Israelite sacrifices where it is said that God smelled a sacrifice. Rendsburg then calls attention to line 161 in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic where it is written that “the gods smelled the sweet savor” of Utnapishtim’s sacrifice.

The Gilgamesh Epic, however, is not the oldest of the Mesopotamian flood stories. It was preceded by about four to five centuries by another flood story, the Epic of Atrahasis. Citing the work of the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Dr. Holtz argues that a “theme of creation, deconstruction and re-creation drives the plot” of the Atrahasis Epic. The story arises out of the circumstances of ancient gods who had grown weary of doing physical labor, including digging ditches for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They created humans to bear their burden, but the human population grew substantially and they were noisy, so the gods could not rest comfortably. The solution was first a flood and, then, new rules to regulate marriage, fertility and infant mortality.

The primeval historical background in the Atrahasis legend is much closer to that in Genesis than is the travelogue of King Gilgamesh. The story of Noah, after all, is in many respects a story of re-creation following the destruction of God’s original world, one in which the people created in God’s own image had become wicked and lawlessness corrupted the earth. (See Gen. 6:5, 11-13.) In the biblical version, the deity that separated the waters above from the waters below in Genesis (at 1:6-7) now reverses course, allows the waters that had been separated for the benefit of the earth to recombine and envelope earth. God will start over, with a newly selected group of humans.

Even older is the Sumerian flood story featuring Ziusudra of Shuruppak. Sumer was in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, roughly from contemporary Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Sumerian civilization was well established by early in the fourth millennium BCE, and Ziusudra is listed in the Sumerian King List. Here, too, the antediluvian gods sought to destroy mankind, but one god, Enki, urged Ziusudra to construct a large boat in order to survive, which he did and, having left his boat, offered a sacrifice.

The archaeological and anthropological records clearly show, then, that several classic flood tales predated the biblical story of Noah. But would the authors of the biblical tale have known of them? And, if so, how and when? Minimally, as the Book of Kings in particular shows, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in constant contact with the greater powers of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, either through commerce or war. No doubt cultural tales, even phrase and words, were shared.

Prof. Rendsburg provides some more concrete clues. He notes that a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic, dating to late in the second millennium BCE, has been found in Megiddo in Northern Israel, and another tablet about Gilgamesh’s life, apparently not part of the twelve tablet Epic, has been found in the coastal city of Ugarit, formerly Northern Canaan and presently in Syria. Neither refer to a flood, but both provide evidence that Mesopotamian stories were transported physically to core biblical lands.

Needless to say, if the exchange of ideas in the normal course was not a sufficient opportunity to learn of ancient Mesopotamian flood stories, the exile of the ruling and literate Judahites to Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem around 587 BCE surely provided it. Those who were taken or, later, grew up in Babylon could hardly have failed to hear of the classic tales that had already traveled beyond their home of origin.

The Refusal to Acknowledge the Cultural Heritage

The failure of Ark Encounter to acknowledge the intellectual history preceding the development of the biblical flood story is more than troublesome. It also precludes a careful reader of the biblical story from appreciating fully the insights and inventiveness of the biblical authors and the dramatic changes they brought to an ancient Mesopotamian tradition.

For instance, the gods in the Atrahasis story resort to flooding the earth because they are irritated by the noisiness of humankind. Their clamor prevented the gods from sleeping well. By contrast, the text in Genesis states that humans were destroyed because of “hamas,” which Yale bible scholar Professor Christine Hayes translates as “violence, bloodshed, but also all kinds of injustice and oppression.” (At Lecture 4, Ch. 4.)

In Gilgamesh, the gods are seen fighting with each other, and once the flood is unleashed, they become terrified of what they have wrought, in part because of the power of the flood and also because they now do not have any food and are starving. That is, as Prof. Hayes teaches, the Mesopotamian gods are in disarray rather than control. The biblical God, however, is neither at the mercy of the elements of nature nor subject to anthropomorphic needs. Similarly, the old gods acted capriciously, but God in the Noah story has standards, and punishes immorality while rewarding righteousness.

The reader will learn no grand lesson from the survival stories of Ziusudra, Atrahasis and Utnapishtim. But the reader of the Noah tale will easily grasp the basic lesson being taught, which Prof. Hayes summarizes as follows: “inhumanity and violence undermine the very foundations of society.” The “cosmic catastrophe” of the flood is not due to religious sins, offensive as they may be, but for a more fundamental breach of basic moral law. With this modified, transformed story, then, the biblical authors changed the discussion of the nature of the universe and provided guidance for future generations.

Obviously, the Noah fable can stand on its own. It has successfully done so for well over two thousand years, effectively replacing the tales of Ziusudra and Utnapishtim as the paradigmatic world flood story.      Hamlet, too, can be appreciated without realizing that William Shakespeare relied on earlier sources such as one written by Thomas Kyd in the late sixteenth century and the much older, twelfth century Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus. Understanding that there were such stories, though, rather than diminishing Shakespeare’s contribution only highlights his skill and the marvelous nature of his text. Similarly, Ark Encounter customers could glean certain moral lessons of the Noah tale from the biblical text alone. But by restricting the customer to the biblical text, and avoiding the back stories, Ark Encounter flattens a textured work and disrespects its author(s).

Further, Ark Encounter fails to address the current consensus among contemporary biblical academics, Prof. Rendsburg being an exception, that the story of Noah told in the Torah is the product of a conflating of parallel texts representing two Noah traditions. By utilizing principles of the Documentary Hypothesis and source criticism, a reader can, however, recreate the original texts. In one, YHWH tells Noah to bring one pair of unclean animals but also seven pairs of clean animals, the flood is caused by rain, which lasts for 40 days, Noah ultimately sends out a dove three times, and YHWH enjoys the sweet savor of Noah’s post journey sacrifice of certain clean animals. In the other, longer version, the dimensions of the Ark are specified, only one pair of animals boards, the source of the flood waters is the open gates of the waters above and below earth, the flood lasts for 150 days until the gates are closed by Elohim (God), and, after more than a year has passed, God tells Noah to leave the Ark and repopulate the world. The separated texts can be found here. Ultimately, the reader must decide whether to accept or not the utility of Documentary Hypothesis and source criticism. Failing to provide the opportunity to do so by claiming that the received text is not to be questioned reflects a determination that a closed mind is to be preferred to an open one.

The Refusal to Acknowledge Physical Facts

Ark Encounter’s failure to address the literary antecedents of the Noah story, a story it embraces, is accompanied by its silence in the face of challenges raised by science, which it apparently does not embrace. The issues are extensive, if not endless. Here we will list only a sample.

  1. Where is the geological evidence, in the nature of silt formations or otherwise, of a global flood about forty-four centuries ago? There doesn’t seem to be any. (See, e.g., here and here.)
  2. Where is the archaeological evidence, in the form of ruins of dwellings and other structures and of bone layers, of such an event? There doesn’t seem to be any. To the contrary, the antediluvian Great Pyramid of Giza and the circle of large sarsens at Stonehenge testify to the absence of a worldwide deluge.
  3. Why is there no record of civilizational disruption in the annals of the Old Kingdom of Egypt or even in the records of the great Mesopotamian cultures just over four millennia ago?
  4. Did Noah collect, say, pandas from China and koalas from Australia? If so, how did he feed them the massive amounts of unique food, bamboo and eucalyptus leaves respectively, they would have required to survive? How did he get them down the steep slope of Mt. Ararat and back home? And, if pandas and koalas were not on the Ark, how can they be here today?
  5. Where did the dinosaurs live 4,100 years ago, before Noah brought them on the Ark? After they left the Ark, where did they go and when and how did the various kinds of dinosaurs die?
  6. Once the flood covered the land surfaces of the world, fresh water lakes and rivers would have been swamped by salt water oceans. Most fish are stenohaline, able to live only within a narrow range of salinity. How did saline sensitive fish from either environment survive?
  7. To have covered the world, over the top of Mt. Everest, would have required an enormous amount of water. For the sake of discussion, given the improbability of such a quantity appearing by rain or the opening of gates to mythical upper and lower bodies of water, when the time came for the flood to cease, where did all the water go? The ocean basins were filled, the land was saturated, and the atmosphere could not contain all that water vapor. Where did the water go?

Honest answers to these questions should confirm the conclusion of Orthodox Rabbi Norman Solomon that that the story of a massive, universal flood rising fifteen cubits over Mt. Ararat some forty-one centuries ago “never happened; [rather] there is overwhelming evidence that most life around the planet continued in its normal course.” Moreover, we have good evidence, from thick deposits near Shuruppak, the Sumerian home of Ziusudra, that a substantial flood occurred there around 2900 BCE. This event is of the right kind at the right time to have prompted the saga of Ziusudra and, in turn, the other stories upon which the biblical tale is based.

Ark Encounter is really Ark Avoidance

Although it extends an invitation to “witness history,” Ark Encounter in practice simultaneously rejects both the flood literature that pre-dates the writing of Noah and also modern science which conclusively demonstrates in a variety of ways why the biblical story did not and could not have happened as it is written. Instead, it focuses narrowly on a story which the author, not claiming to be either an historian or a scientist, carefully constructed for a particular purpose at a particular time. We have not yet sufficiently identified that time, much less that author, but at least we should be able to understand the inspirational precedents with which the author was working, marvel at the vision that guided his work and appreciate the talent necessary to forge the resulting work to advance his needs and goals.

When faith fears facts, and opts for fiction, it risks looking foolish. Rather than demonstrating character, it invites caricature. We have seen the results in our own community, and it is tragic. When any person of faith succumbs to such fear, whether promoted by Ark Encounter or the leaders of the Jewish Satmar sect or others, he or she actually displays a lack of true faith both in the God s/he professes to worship and the reality that God presumably created, including the creature the Bible uniquely claims was made in that God’s image. Conversely, if the phrase “image of God” means anything, it must mean, as the first chapter of Genesis makes abundantly clear, a being capable of making meaningful distinctions among various possibilities, a being that exercises the brain with which it has been blessed.

Asking a person of faith to embrace reality does not require that person to abandon belief in a Higher Power. It merely urges, to paraphrase the words attributed almost two thousand years ago to a young Jewish man from Nazareth who was teaching in Jerusalem, that such a person render to science that which belongs to science, including in this case, at least archaeology, cultural anthropology, geology, evolutionary biology and hydrology. (Cf., Mark 12:17.)

In the end, and in addition to its other failures, Ark Encounter does a disservice to its customers. Though it claims to have spent over $100,000,000, the Ark Encounter project has missed a marvelous opportunity. It has chosen to comfort the choir, instead of informing, challenging and elevating them. Worse, it encourages them, rewards them for keeping their eyes and ears shut and their minds closed. There may be short term financial gain in that, but not much future. What a pity. An Ark is a terrible thing to waste.

Roger Price <![CDATA[The Myth and Function of the Passover Plagues]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=671 2016-04-19T21:12:06Z 2016-04-19T21:12:06Z Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt.  Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected. 

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt.  (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE.  If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3500 year old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.)

The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah?  What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god.

This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized.  And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither theExodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story.  Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story.  When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

Roger Price <![CDATA[Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=662 2016-02-28T16:20:55Z 2016-02-28T16:20:55Z Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient.

Conscious and more cost-effective breeding activity accelerated in the twentieth century of the common era with the use of nuclear technologies, tissue cultures, haploid breeding and, most recently, transgenic technology. The latter technology encompasses the placing genetic material of one species into another resulting in an organism described as transgenic. In this light, GM crops are really genetically engineered (“GE”) crops or biotech crops. The terms will be used interchangeably here.

Genetically engineered crops were introduced on a commercial level in the United States in 1996. Since then, corn, soybean and cotton farmers have adopted GM crops rapidly and robustly. (See USDA Economic Research Report 162 (February, 2014) (15/60).) According to the USDA Economic Research Service, as of 2015, the percentage of acreage in the United States utilizing GM seeds has reached 92% for corn and 94% for cotton and soybeans. Farmers in the United States like GM seeds primarily because they increase the crop yield, and also because their use reduces management time and decreases the cost of pesticides. (See USDA Report 162 at 18, 47/60.)

The United States is far from the only country which has adopted GM seeds. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (“ISAAA”), by 2014 GM crops were being produced in twenty-eight countries, some developed, but many not.  More than thirty other countries import biotech crops.

The rapid and robust rise of GM crops has not come without controversy. Two broad categories of claims have been advanced against GM crops. The first is that they are neither safe nor fit for consumption because they are unnatural and untested and will introduce toxins and allergens and otherwise harm consumers. The second is that the corporate purveyors of GM crop seed are improperly seeking to control the crop market to their financial advantage and the economic detriment of farmers and the general population.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (“AAAS”), the charges related to food safety are unfounded. In the United States, the largest producer of GM crops, “each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing in order to receive regulatory approval.” The seed producer has the burden of demonstrating both the integrity of any new crop and that any proposed new protein trait is “neither toxic nor allergenic.” Consequently, the overwhelming consensus in the reputable scientific community is that GM crops which have been subjected to national government analysis, testing and approval are safe. More precisely, as the AAAS Board of Directors has put it: “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” The American Medical Association concurs, as does the World Health Organization (see here).

The arguments concerning market control arise from political and economic philosophy, but seem equally dubious. In the United States, the seed market for soybeans and corn is clearly dominated by two companies, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, which split about 70% of each market. Rather than demonstrating control by either, however, market analysis therefore shows that each company has a very strong competitor and numerous smaller competitors. Neither Monsanto nor DuPont Pioneer appears to have the market power, much less the legal authority, to force any farmer to do anything.

What does all this have to do with Jews and Judaism?

At its crassest level, GM crops provide one more lightening rod for anti-Semites. In one such diatribe, the author not only criticizes Monsanto for its Jewish officers and investors, it accuses the company of conspiring with Jews in the United States Food and Drug Adminstration, and (former) “Senator Jew (sic) Lieberman” to secure the “right to shut down farmers who refuse to purchase Jewsanto’s (sic) GMO seeds” and to obtain a “global monopoly . . . forcing the populace to consume this poison.” As the pop star Taylor Swift teaches, though, the “haters gonna hate, hate, hate . . .”, and we just need to “shake, shake . . . shake it off . . . .”

There are also Jews who oppose GM crops, and who purport to do so based on Jewish beliefs and values. One such opponent is Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, advocate of Eco-Judaism and a prolific writer.  A few years ago, Waskow published a Tu B’Shvat Seder to Heal a Wounded Earth. Part of it is premised on the charge that Monsanto is “imposing” GM crops on increasing numbers of farmers, and that Monsanto “threatens the sustainability of agriculture . . . .” No factual support is offered for either of those or related accusations. The first is false as market statistics demonstrate, and the second would be financially suicidal for Monsanto and therefore an extraordinarily improbable effort on its part. There may be a Jewish rationale for opposing GM crops, but what is offered here is, to be charitable, analytically weak, and more a negative, almost Pavlovian reflex to big business, in this case personified by big agri-business giant, Monsanto.

One can almost hear a contemporary Isaiah asking rhetorically, to those comfortable enough to celebrate: “Is this the seder I desire, one that curses a producer of crop seed? Isn’t the seder I desire one that supports the expansion of agricultural resources, that increases the amount of grain available to the poor, that feeds more so that less are hungry?” (Cf. Isa. 58:3-7.)The hard truth, however uncomfortable it may be for some who operate on a more mystical plane, is that in the real world the GM seeds produced by Monsanto and others, sown in hundreds of millions of acres around the globe from Spain to South Africa, from Paraguay to Pakistan, and from China to the Czech Republic put more nutritious food in more mouths than do all the Tu B’Shvat sederim ever held.

Another opponent of GM crops is Raphael Bratman, who has argued that such foods ought not be considered kosher. He also claims that the mixing of species violates a Jewish prohibition known as kilayim. Readers of this site may be familiar with Bratman. He has argued against vaccinations on the grounds that they are unsafe and not kosher, and we have criticized those arguments as not being well grounded either in science or on principles of kashrut. Bratman’s arguments as to GM crops will fare no better.

Bratman’s discussion begins appropriately enough with reference to a statement by the Orthodox Union (“OU”) concerning whether the introduction of non-kosher genetic material into an otherwise kosher product renders the altered product as non-kosher.  Bratman reports that OU’s position is that genetic engineering does not alter the kosher status of the recipient organism for two reasons. First, the amount of transferred genetic material is microscopic and insignificant. Second, the descendants of the altered item were not themselves recipients of non-kosher genetic material. Having found an answer he does not like, and from an authority he selected, instead of reconsidering his position, Bratman expresses his admitted frustration with “OU’s ignorance of the issue” and rejects OU’s statement as “miss(ing) the point completely.” This is not surprising. He took essentially the same tack when his argument that injectable vaccines were not kosher was universally rejected by leading kashrut authorities around the world.

Oddly, the OU statement to which Bratman refers seems to have been deleted (as of this writing) from the OU website. But Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman concurs. Addressing the issue of genetically modified foods, he says: “Although there are instance of genetic material of non-kosher animals being used in kosher food, to date, no one has succeeded in demonstrating that this renders the food non-kosher.”

Bratman’s second objection, based on the doctrine of kilayim, is more problematic, but he spends little time addressing the problems. At its biblical root, kilayim is based on two verses in the Torah, one in the Holiness Code in Leviticus and the other in Deuteronomy. The first bars the mating of two kinds of animals, the sowing of two kinds of seeds in a field and the wearing of clothing made from two kinds of cloth. (See Lev. 19:19.) The provision in Deuteronomy is similar, but not identical. It prohibits seeding a vineyard with two kinds of seeds, plowing with an ox and ass together, and the wearing of wool and linen together. (See Deut. 22:9-11.) The prohibitions are consistent with a worldview that sees a certain order in the universe, believes that such order should be maintained, and emphasizes separation of like from unlike and the preservation of boundaries as defining features of holiness. At the same time, the intent of the authors expressing these rules is neither stated nor clear.

Not surprisingly, renowned rabbis across centuries have disagreed about the interpretation of these phrases. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (also known as Ramban, or Nachmanides) (c. 1194-1270) argued that these rules teach that humankind should not disturb the fundamental nature of God’s creation. Centuries later, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (The Maharal of Prague) (c. 1525-1609) took a different tack. As summarized by Rabbi Freeman, the Maharal contended that “any change that human beings introduce into the world already existed in potential when the world was created. All that humans do is bring that potential into actuality.”

Within the last few years, committees of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinic associations have addressed the issue of genetically engineered foods. The Responsa Committee of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis (“CCAR”) focused on a narrow question, the permissibility of using a specific modified food known as Golden Rice to save the vision and lives of children. In November, 2015, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly (“RA”) approved a lengthy and detailed study by Rabbi Daniel Nevins regarding the interpretation and application of Jewish law with respect to  host of issues related to genetically modified organisms.

CCAR Responsa no. 5774.5 is, unfortunately, not generally accessible on the internet, but its findings can be summarized here. The Responsa Committee recognized that the primary legal question was whether Golden Rice, being a product of the injection into conventional rice of foreign genetic material designed to provide Vitamin A, was prohibited by kilayim. It concluded that it was not for three reasons: 1) the prohibition only applied to a natural mixing, not to synthetic engineering, 2) having been transformed in a laboratory, the transferred gene segment was not from a different species of plant, but was a “different substance altogether (davar chadash),” and 3) the resulting product was not a new species, but “a member of the same species bearing with new characteristics.”

While finding that “the prohibition of kilayim does not apply to contemporary techniques of genetic modification,” the Committee could not reach a consensus on the effects of GM crops generally or Golden Rice specifically on the ecosystem, another and historic matter of Jewish concern.  (See, e.g., Deut. 20:19-20.) It then suggested that those who could make educated judgments about such matters, whether for or against Golden Rice, would stand “on good Jewish grounds.”

For the record, Vitamin A deficiency adversely affects the health of tens of millions around the globe, especially pregnant women and children. By some accounts, it is responsible for 500,000 cases of juvenile blindness and up to two million deaths annually. Since the CCAR Responsa was issued, President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has announced that Golden Rice has received a Patents for Humanity Award, given for its contribution to improving global health and raising the living standards of underserved populations. Apparently, Pope Francis has also blessed Golden Rice.

The RA study addressed considerably more issues than did the CCAR Committee. Like the latter group, RA spent no meaningful time discussing kashrut. It began with a brief review of evolution and a more detailed one concerning recent developments in genetic engineering. In the course of the review, the Committee made several crucial observations.

Initially, the RA recognized that the traditional notion of an initial creation of fully formed species, and “the stability of these species across time,” has become “untenable in the past two centuries.” (At 3-4/49; see also, 21-24/49.) The RA also noted that current life forms not only share common parents, sometimes one species acquires genes from another. The Committee accepted data showing that “as many as 145 genes (from among 20,000 in the human genome) have been picked up from other species.” (At 8/49.)  Further, while acknowledging that continued study is warranted, the RA held that “(g)enetic engineering is a field of great promise in combating hunger and disease,”  and “we are obligated to feed the hungry, heal the ill and to preserve human health.” (At 5, 12/49.)

The RA then proceeded to discuss two methods of halakhik analysis, one based on legal formalism and the other on values-informed interpretation, as they may relate to the field of transgenics.  Noting with approval the Talmudic principle that “stringent positions in halakhah bear the burden of proof,” the RA recognized that one could limit forbidden activities to those precisely prohibited in Torah. (See 30-31/49.)

By contrast, a values-informed analysis looks to the purposes of the laws. (See 33/49.) Here the RA noted that the sages were concerned about blending species out of “respect for the creation.” (At 35/49.) At the same time, while those sages would clearly forbid the act of forming a new hybrid species, it was not clear to the Committee that the sages would prohibit other than full blending, that is, “the transfer of (limited) sequences of DNA from one organism to another.”  (At 37/49.) In any event, as the Committee observed, the sages “were also clear in permitting the produce of (any) such forbidden efforts.” (At 36/49.)

The RA concluded that the Torah’s ban on kilayim “does not extend formally to the modification of gene sequences via the introduction of foreign DNA in order to convey a specific capability in the new organism.”  Cautioning that the “health implications of genetically modified foods must be examined on an individual basis,” it further recognized that “Jews may benefit from the fruits of hybridized plants . . . .” (At 44/49.)

So, there seems to be as much of a consensus as there might ever be when it comes to an understanding of Jewish law as applied to new technology. GM crops, to date, do not raise any serious kashrut issues, nor does the principle of kilayim necessarily preclude either the production or the consumption of GM crops. The only serious issue is whether such foods are safe and beneficial or not, matters best left to scientists than rabbis.

Do new technologies of genetic engineering raise concerns? Sure. Does the application of any new technology to the production and consumption of food products warrant heightened scrutiny? Of course. But after twenty years of increased commercialization, subject to government protocols and reviews, with hundreds of millions of acres of genetically modified crops being produced and consumed, with all the data that has been accumulated and dissected, with all the studies that have been generated, it would seem that the initial reasonable concerns of the past have been addressed and the originally feared scenarios have not materialized.

This conclusion is buttressed by a report published online in 2013 in the Critical Review of Biotechnology. The report concerned a survey of 1,783 research papers and other documents published in the previous decade regarding various aspects of GM crop safety.  Such a meta-survey is important because it avoids problems inherent in cherry-picked data and puts an anomalous result from any single study in proper perspective. The main findings were quite instructive: 1) no significant hazard was detected in connection with the use of GM crops, 2) not a single credible example of a detrimental effect from the consumption of such crops was identified, 3) there was no evidence that GM crops were uniquely allergenic, much less toxic, 4) genetic segments of DNA from GM crops have not been and cannot be integrated into our cells, 5) there was little to no evidence of damage to the environment from biotech crops, and 6) usage of GM crops was less likely to reduce biodiversity than non-GM crops. (See also, here.)

The haters gonna hate and the science deniers gonna deny. Whether the denial of science comes from one end of the political spectrum or the other is irrelevant. It is, by definition, non-rational, and often irrational. It is also counter-productive to the work our tradition teaches we need to do. With the important caveats that new data might warrant different conclusions, and that vigilance is always warranted when our bodies, our food and our environment are involved, reality based Judaism supports the introduction and usage of tested and approved GM crops that help people. It does so because reality based Judaism seeks to address the world as it is, not as it might have been in some ancient mythical garden, nor as it might be in some medieval mystical construct of ten sefirot, nor even as it is experienced in the comfortable confines of academia or similar social bubble, nor, for that matter, as we might like it to be. It does so, not to the exclusion of organic or non-GM crops, but as a useful means to achieve a desired end.

Given the overwhelming consensus on what Judaism permits, the data should drive us, that is, good data from reputable, independent sources, rigorously applying the scientific method (discussed here). And evidence should trump anecdote and ideology every time, whether the issue is abortion, vaccinations or something else.

The writers of the Torah and the ancient sages can be forgiven for some of their assumptions of the nature of our world. They did not have the benefit of our scientific methods or tools. But today, there is no excuse for ignorance, and, when people are hungry or seek relief from disease, there ought not be much room for those who would close the door to the possibility of better health by bending or ignoring the facts in order to conform to some pre-existing political or economic bias. We can do better. We can heed the lesson from another, more traditional seder. Does not the Passover Haggadah call on us to open the door? Does it not read: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat!”?


Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Math Proves Atheism and Materialistic Determinism are Unprovable Beliefs]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=649 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z A mathematical problem underlying fundamental questions in particle and quantum physics is provably unsolvable, according to an online report on phys.org December 9, 2015. It is the first major problem in physics for which such a fundamental limitation could be proven. The findings are important because they show that even a perfect and complete description of the microscopic properties of a material is not enough to predict its macroscopic behavior.

A small spectral gap the energy needed to transfer an electron from a low­ energy state to an excited state ­ is the central property of semiconductors. In a similar way, the spectral gap plays an important role for many other materials. When this energy becomes very small, i.e., the spectral gap closes, it becomes possible for the material to make a phase transition to a completely different state. An example of this is when a material becomes superconducting.

Mathematically extrapolating from a microscopic description of a material to the bulk solid is considered one of the key tools in the search for materials exhibiting superconductivity at ambient temperatures or other desirable properties. A study, published (12/9/15) in Nature, however, shows crucial limits to this approach. Using sophisticated mathematics, the authors proved that, even with a complete microscopic description of a quantum material, determining whether it has a spectral gap is, in fact, an undecidable question.

Godel and Turing are famous for proving that some mathematical questions are `undecidable’ ­ they are neither true nor false, because they are beyond the reach of mathematics. The new research shows that the spectral gap problem in quantum physics is one of these undecidable problems. This means a mathematical method to determine whether matter described by quantum mechanics has a spectral gap or not cannot exist; thus limiting the extent to which we can exactly predict the behavior of quantum materials, and potentially even of fundamental particle physics.

Particle physics experiments at CERN, and numerical calculations on supercomputers suggest that there is a spectral gap. “We knew about the possibility of problems that are undecidable in principle since the works of Turing and Gödel in the 1930s,” added co-­author Professor Michael Wolf from Technical University of Munich. “So far, however, this only concerned the very abstract corners of theoretical computer science and mathematical logic”.

   “No one had seriously contemplated this as a possibility right in the heart of theoretical physics before. But our results change this picture. From a more philosophical perspective, they also challenge the reductionists’ point of view, as the insurmountable difficulty lies precisely in the derivation of macroscopic properties from a microscopic description.”

Co­-author, Professor David Pérez­García from Universidad Complutense de Madrid and ICMAT, said: “It’s not all bad news, though. Our results show that adding even a single particle to a lump of matter, however large, could in principle dramatically change its properties.” This statement is the physics equivalent of the ‘butterfly effect’ in chaos theory; and religious beliefs in the rationally unprovable existence of human and Divine free will.

At the most fundamental level: Atheism, Theism, Determinism and Free Will are all scientifically unprovable beliefs. You pay your life; and make your choice how to live it.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Paleoanthropology in Genesis]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=644 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world. 

Dr. Penny Spikins says that the speed and character of human dispersals changed significantly about 80-100,000 years ago. Before then, movements of pre-Homo Sapiens species were slow and largely due to environmental events, population increases or ecological changes. Then, relatively quickly, human populations spread with remarkable speed and across major environmental barriers.

Dr. Spikins relates this change to changes in human moral, spiritual, and emotional relationships. In research published in Open Quaternary (PHYS.org November 24, 2015), she says that neither population increases nor ecological changes provide an adequate explanation for patterns of human movement into new regions which began around 80-100,000 years ago.

Spikins suggests that as social and personal commitments to others became more essential to group survival, human groups became more motivated to identify and punish those individuals who cheat. Moral disputes motivated by broken trust and/or a sense of betrayal became more frequent and motivated early humans to put distance between themselves and their rivals.

The religious and emotional bonds which held populations together in crisis, had a darker side in heartfelt reactions to betrayal which we still feel today. Larger social networks made it easier to find distant allies with whom to start new colonies, and more efficient hunting technology meant that anyone with a grudge and a weapon was a danger, but it was human values and emotions which provided a force of repulsion from existing occupied areas, which we do not see in other animals.

The expansion of Homo Erectus out of Africa into Asia around 1.8 million years ago appears to have been caused by the need to find more large scale grasslands. After 80-100,000 years ago, however, dispersal into distant, risky and inhospitable areas became relatively more common compared with movements into already occupied regions. Human populations moved into very cold regions of Northern Europe, crossed significant river deltas such as the Indus and the Ganges, deserts, tundra and jungle environments and even made significant sea crossings to reach Australia.

In other words, God’s commandment to “fill up planet Earth” is followed by Eve and Adam’s decision to internalize (eat) the fruit the morality tree, and gain knowledge of good and evil. This leads to moral or religious conflicts that often provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to run away, and to take almost any risk to do so.

While religion is a powerful force binding people together, it also can be a strong force that gives courage and hope to small groups of dissenters, who abandon their birth community and go forth to a strange far away land, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household, to the land I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing.’” (Gen. 12:1-2.)

For more information: “The geography of trust and betrayal: moral disputes and Late Pleistocene dispersal,” Open Quaternary, doi.org/10.5334/oq.ai.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Roger Price <![CDATA[In the Beginning and In the End]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=638 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good.

Between 380,000 and 400,000 years after creation, the temperature in the considerably expanded and expanding universe dropped to less than 3000 degrees Kelvin. Electrons now orbited the existing nuclei. Atoms formed. The universe was now transparent to visible light, but in the absence of stars still dark. This was still good.

A second stage in the life of the cosmos now began. In this interstellar stage, light elements, primarily hydrogen and helium gasses, begin to coalesce to form galaxies filled with stars. Over time, long periods of time, some stars died and in the process sent forth heavier elements created in their core. As that process repeated and repeated, the universe became seeded with heavier elements. This was very good.

One of the earliest galaxies to form was one now known as the Milky Way. Billions of years later, this galaxy assumed a spiral shape. On one of the outer arms of this spiral galaxy, light gasses gravitated together and then ignited to become a conventional yellow star called the Sun. Heavier stellar dust surrounding the Sun accreted into various objects, some large enough to be called planets. The third planet in orbit around the Sun is known as Earth. Due largely to its distance from the Sun, the temperature of Earth relatively soon came to allow for liquid water and a protective atmosphere. This was very, very good.

Shortly after conditions permitted, simple life emerged on Earth. Just as we do not know what initiated the explosive growth in the original small, hot and dense universe, we do not know exactly what forces changed inorganic chemical compounds into self-replicating lifeforms. All that we know is that the change was very, very good.

Life evolved over time, all kinds of life, slowly at first and then profoundly. Subsequent natural disasters caused mass extinctions of many lifeforms, but those situations also allowed others to flourish. Following the impact of an asteroid or comet on Earth about 65 million years ago, non-avian dinosaurs died, but small mammals now had an opportunity to multiply in number and evolve in form. And they did, ultimately generating a species of primates who could stand erect and wonder and think and speak and proclaim that all that had come before was very, very, very good.

Jewish tradition literally begins with the Beginning. The Judahites and Israelites and their ancestors who first began to contemplate the Beginning and their beginnings had no inkling either about the reality of the origin of the cosmos, or of the nature and duration of its development. But then, how could they have known what actually happened? Science as we understand it did not exist when the authors of the Torah stories put quill to scroll.

And, equally important, the purpose of those authors was not to observe, describe and test natural phenomena. Rather they were interested in the preservation and development of a particular people in a particular place during a particular period of time. Their collected story was not so much about fact, as it concerned faith and future. They were focused, to use the phrase of the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, on “one God, one Law, one people, one land.”

Consequently, they chose to begin their national saga both by demythologizing the then current creation stories extant in the ancient Near East and asserting, though not consistently or in philosophical terms, the idea that there was and ought to be order in the universe, an order established by a single, powerful god. They wrote of a deity who not only operated in history, but who initiated history through a series of acts of creation, differentiation, separation and identification. (See Gen. 1:1-31.) With key elements of the universe both established and ordered, their tale of the development of humanity generally and the destiny of a particular family, nation and people could now unfold.

Still, while the creation story in Genesis is mythic (i.e., a traditional story that explains) and not scientific (i.e., not analytic and predictive), it is a powerful myth. It is one of the two interventions in history, along with the exodus story, that are invoked frequently as evidence of God’s powers and achievement. Biblical prophets like Isaiah (at, e.g., 40:12, 42:5) and psalmists (at, e.g., 8:2-4, 19:2, 102:26 and 121:1-2) maintained and embellished the theme of the creator God. That theme later became incorporated in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, as part of prayers like the Sabbath Kiddush recited over a cup of wine, the evening prayer Maariv Aravim, the Sabbath morning Psukei D’zimrah (verses of praise) and the traditional closing prayers, Aleinu and Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish).

Discoveries in science over the last few centuries, and especially in the last few generations, have challenged the literal Genesis text. For some, the biblical story nevertheless remains the accurate report of events which took placed some 5776 years ago, and they have rejected modern science. For others, the story retains vitality and they have strained to reconcile the ancient words with contemporary knowledge. For still others, though, people who embrace modern science without reservation, the biblical myth serves as the basis for what some call creation or process theology or evolution theology or eco-theology. These approaches seek to integrate newly revealed science with certain philosophical or theological perspectives. They incorporate the facts that we are all stardust, all related members of the same evolutionary tree of life. And they assert that we are bound by our connection to the Earth to preserve and protect it. Contemporary Jewish thought demonstrates that the biblical creation story still resonates.

Yet, if for over two and a half millennia Jewish thought has engaged energetically and enthusiastically with the beginning of time, it has been less concerned about confronting the end of time. To understand just how limited Jewish thought is regarding the end of time, it will be helpful to understand what modern science teaches about our future, and that of our planet, our solar system, our galaxy and the universe itself.

Putting aside the possibility of worldwide death by disease and the perhaps greater possibility of global demise due to thermonuclear war (the Doomsday Clock now sitting at only three minutes to midnight), history evidences no less than five mass extinctions of life in the last four hundred and fifty million years. The last of these extinctions occurred about 65,000,000 years ago when, as noted above, an extraterrestrial object hit Earth. The force of the blow, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was perhaps a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in World War II. The impact crater it created, known as the Chicxulub Crater, is about 110 miles in diameter. While our shrew like ancestors survived, and we ultimately evolved, there can be no guarantee that we would survive the next such event. After all, Chicxulub may not even be the biggest impact crater on Earth.

Moreover, even assuming that we avoid disease, war and asteroids, human life on Earth, indeed Earth itself, is still doomed. Our Sun is about halfway through its own lifecycle. By most estimates, it has only another five billion years, give or take, to live. During that time, it will consume all of its hydrogen, collapse, begin to fuse helium, and then expand into an immense red giant star. As the solar death process unfolds, the Sun will expand first to reach Mercury’s orbit, then that of Venus and finally Earth’s. The atmosphere will dissipate, the seas will evaporate and Earth may well spiral into the enlarged Sun and vaporize. Ultimately, the Sun itself will collapse into a white dwarf with a carbon core.

Perhaps humankind will have left Earth by then and established bases on more distant planets or their moons or even in other star systems in the Milky Way. Yet that may not be enough to save our species. Our spiral galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest and much larger galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Andromeda is presently about 2.5 million light years away from us. That equates to over seventeen trillion miles, a goodly distance. But we are approaching each other at about a quarter of a million miles per hour. So, in about four to five billion years the two star systems will collide. According to Harvard astronomy professor and theoretical cosmologist Avi Loeb, the result will be a new spheroidal shaped galaxy (3/12). Of course, by then, as we have seen, our birth planet and our Sun will be dying and taking Earth with it. Will the new worlds on which we have landed survive the twists and turns of intergalactic gravitational forces?

But wait! If an intergalactic collision is much too much to contemplate, there may be less, much less, in our longer term future. In recent years, science has come to understand what the late, great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, with no earned academic degrees, knew all along (though he may not have been the first to say so). “The future,” Yogi once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”

Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929 that galaxies in general were moving apart from each other was astonishing enough. It indicated that our universe, space itself, was expanding. Less than twenty years ago, in 1998, astrophysicists determined that the rate of expansion is not steady as once supposed, but is in fact accelerating due to a repulsive force of gravity called dark energy. Because dark energy is not well understood, there is no consensus as to what the future holds for our home universe, but of many possible scenarios three (each with variations) are most discussed. They are often called the Big Crunch, the Big Rip and the Big Freeze.

In the Big Crunch, at some point trillions of years in the future, perhaps because dark energy is less pervasive than thought or ceases to be as powerful as thought, gravity overcomes the expansion of the universe, a process of universal collapse and consolidation ensues, all that is rushes back ultimately to a hot, dense state similar to that from which the universe emerged.

In the Big Rip, the expansion of space proceeds to the point where first galaxies, then stars and planets and ultimately the atoms of elements themselves cannot hold together. They simply rip apart, leaving a vast expanding universe of drifting subatomic particles. One estimate is that this scenario could unfold over a period running from about 22 billion to 62 billion years from now.

In the Big Freeze, the universe continues to expand, but not sufficiently fast to cause cosmic suicide. As galaxies become more and more separated from each other, and stars within galaxies do as well, our descendants, if any, will lose the ability to see them and the evening sky will become darker and darker. As the universe gets larger, its temperature will approach absolute zero. Existing stars ultimately will die and no more will be born. The universe will suffer from heat death and become an infinitely large area of dark husks and waste.

Of course, much of this is speculative. And there are variations on these themes as well as other scenarios. For instance, some believe that the Big Crunch could lead to a Big Bounce and renewed life for the universe. Others talk about a Big Change or a Big Slurp, where a bubble in our universe or from another universe suddenly appears and annihilates our universe. That said, and with all possible caveats, the Big Freeze scenario appears, for now, to be the most probable of all futures.

Needless to say, the authors of the Torah knew nothing about an expanding universe, or dark energy, or Big Crunches, Rips or Freezes. If they ever conceived of the evolution and ultimate fate of their universe at all, they said nothing. For them, as it is most of the time for most of us, all concerns, like all politics, were local.

Similarly, Biblical prophets and poets, and later Talmudic and medieval sages, were no more informed about modern astrophysics as it applies to the future and ultimate death of the universe than they were to the physics that applied to the origin of the universe or the biochemistry involved in the evolution of life. But they did speak on occasion about acharit hayamim, meaning the end of days or the days to come, an unspecified time in the distant future. Even as they did, though, they created no complete narrative analogous to the creation stories, nothing that described the end of life on our home planet, much less the death of the universe as we know it.

When the days to come were envisioned in the book of Isaiah, they were seen as an idyllic time when the house of the God of Israel would be established on the highest mountain, God’s word would go forth from Jerusalem, and none but the God of Israel would be worshipped. (Is. 2:2, 3, 17.) At that time, the many nations of the world would beat their swords into pruning hooks and forego war (Is. 2:4), and the wolf would dwell with the lamb, just as the leopard would lie down with the kid (Is. 11:6). Similarly, on that day, the dispersed people of Israel would return from Assyria, Egypt and other lands, and Judah and Israel would be reunited. (Is. 11:11-13.) The reunited community would be rewarded with everlasting joy and gladness (Is. 51:11), with the smallest becoming a mighty clan, and the least, a mighty nation (Is. 60:22).

Invoking the metaphors of dried bones and sticks, Ezekiel, too, foresaw the reunification of Judah and Ephraim, never again to be divided. (Ezek. 36:24, 37:1-23.) Given a new heart and new spirit, the people would be cleansed and their land would once again become like the Garden of Eden, with abundant fields, but now populated and fortified. (Ezek. 36:24-27; 36:30-35.) In Zechariah’s words, when the dispersed returned home, the squares of Jerusalem would be filled with old men and women with their staffs in hand, and crowded with young boys and girls playing. (Zech. 8:4-5.)

While the exile of Judahites to Babylon did end, and a Second Temple was constructed, ultimately that period ended in destruction and dispersal as well. Not only had the prophesied time of peace and prosperity neither come nor been sustained, the rabbis in the Talmudic period (c. 50 – c. 500 CE) were faced with communal concerns quite different than those confronting the ancient prophets. They continued to discuss and elaborate on a hypothetical end of days, which they extrapolated into a Messianic Age, one which would be presided over by the anointed one, the Mashiach or Messiah, and come, by some interpretation, no later than 6000 years after creation, a view maintained by some today. By a traditional count, the birthday of the world is dated to Rosh HaShanah in 3761 BCE, meaning that the Messianic Age would arrive no later than Rosh HaShanah in the year 2239 CE. The rabbis were giving themselves and the Messiah plenty of slack.

But as the great medieval scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam or Maimonides, observed, whenever the Messianic Age might commence, even while there would be greater peace and more wisdom, there would also still be rich and poor, strong and weak. The essence of the Messianic Age for the Rambam (at 19-20/38) was that Jews would return to the land of Israel and regain their independence. Life would go on. Even as some imagined horrific battles or other conditions that would presage the Messianic Age, there was no narrative about mass destruction during the Messianic Age itself. The whole point was the reconstitution of a united Jewish People in their ancestral homeland, free to build their society in peace.

How could it be otherwise? After all, if it were foreseen that the entirety of what is, including life itself, would someday cease to be, and cease irrespective of the scope of adherence to a particular set of commandments, laws and instructions, how would rabbis of that time have explained the purpose of the original creation? What would such an anticipated end say of the Creator of the Beginning? Or of God’s later promise to Noah, his descendants and all living creatures, symbolized by the rainbow, to never again destroy the world? (See Gen. 9:8-17.)

Of course, the same questions can be asked of rabbis today and they have less of an excuse of ignorance. At the same time, perhaps the Messianic Age is too important a topic to be left to theologians. Perhaps it is for poets to provide the compelling lesson, as Danny Siegel does here:

If you always assume that the man sitting next to you is the Messiah,

Waiting for some simple human kindness,

You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.

And if he so chooses not to reveal himself in your time,

It will not matter.


Roger Price <![CDATA[Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=625 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com

This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?

Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing.

JSG: So, Milton Friedman played no role in your prayer development?

A: Milton Friedman? No. I also have an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in English composition. Of course, all of my education, formal and informal, has had an influence on how I see the world.

JSG: Alden, in your experience, why do people pray?

A: Before we can ask why people pray, we need to begin to unpack a different question: “What is prayer?” Let me attempt a definition.

Prayer is an intentioned communication with God. We can do an entire interview right here. What do we mean by intentioned? Communication? God? Using this definition, your question becomes: “Why do people attempt to communicate with God?” People pray as an answer to their yearnings. People pray because of their desire for a connection with holiness, the divine, with their inner voice. We pray when we’re overwhelmed with joy, fear, sorrow or loss. We pray to celebrate. We pray to create a connection with beauty, hope, joy or love. We pray to express our inner selves. Prayer is the expression of an intention to be in relationship with God.

Now let’s change the definition and see what happens. Prayer is the fulfillment of an obligation to God. Suddenly, the whole texture changes. Prayer is a formula of words and acts, prescribed by God’s emissaries, written by God’s appointed, which fulfills a sacred duty. Using this definition, the question becomes: “Why do people want to fulfill their obligations to God?” Prayer is an expression of a desire to do God’s will.

What do these two completely different answers have in common? Faith. Faith that our prayers matter. Faith that our prayers will be heard. Faith that prayer might make a difference in the world. Faith that prayer has the power to heal. Faith that prayer is a divinely-inspired act. In my experience, there are as many reasons to pray as there are people praying. Faith unifies them all.

These definitions focus on verbal prayer. Many people would say that their prayer life centers on actions rather than words: yoga, meditation, journaling. Others would say that they pray by being in nature: gardening, birding, astronomy or hiking, for example. Others would say their philanthropy or volunteer works are acts of prayer. We engage in these formal and not-so-formal acts of prayer in order to draw ourselves closer to God, to listen for God’s voice or to express our yearnings with our deeds.

JSG: Your answer raises the issue of the definition of God. How do you define the object of your communication, the entity with which or with whom you seek a relationship?

A:   No words can adequately describe God. For me, ‘source’ is a powerful way to understand God, both in the sense of original source, the ‘creator,’ as well as the ongoing source, the ‘sustainer.’ Add to that the ideas – reflected in our classic liturgy – of infinite, one, without bodily form or substance, holy, whose existence is beyond time. Each addition, of course, adds a potential new set of conversations.

We commonly employ contrasting images of God in our attempt to describe God. For example: One metaphor is God somewhere beyond the gates of heaven. God is distant and remote. Yet, we also conceive of God as right here, right now, the ‘still small voice,’ so close, so near and present, that God’s voice is actually inside of each of us. Both describe ways we experience God.

Defining ‘God’ is often an attempt to apprehend an understanding with intellectual faculties. Seeking to define God is not nearly as powerful as seeking to experience God. The desire to experience God is an attempt to apprehend God with spiritual faculties. That’s a matter of trust in the validity and truth of spiritual experience, no matter how remote God may seem. It’s a matter of faith that the still small voice of God, present in each of us, can be heard.

JSG: Do you pray often?

A: As soon as I wake up I say an off-the-cuff prayer, sometimes a few, as well as the traditional ‘modeh ani.’ I also pray formally, with a prayer book, once each day. I put on tefillin and say the Sh’ma. Several times each day I pause, sometimes just to thank God for a beautiful moment, sometimes to say the classic Jewish ‘asher yatzar’ prayer, sometimes to pray for healing for specific people I know who are ill. I continue to regularly journal, write a gratitude list and meditate.

JSG: Do you pray using the prayers that you have written?

A: I use handful of favorites in my personal prayers each day. I also use my prayers focused on Jewish holy days and seasons, such as daily prayers during the counting of the Omer and the Passover prayers found in my second book Hagaddah Companion: Meditations and Readings. When I have a scholar-in-residency, several of my Shabbat prayers are typically incorporated into the Friday night service.

JSG: What do you find lacking in traditional prayer language?

A: Some of the language and themes found in our traditional Siddur are challenging: prayers with triumphal themes, prayers that exclude women, prayers that portray God as angry or jealous, prayers about reinstating the sacrificial cult, for example. The body of our historic liturgy also lacks responses to many core problems of our day. That is changing as more and more individuals – rabbis, educators, poets – create and share new prayers and new rituals.

It’s instructive to ask if the struggle is with the Hebrew, the translation or the interpretation. The translations in the Koren and the Artscroll siddurs are much different. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s z”l daily Siddur maintains the traditional Hebrew but has a radically different translation. Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform Siddur, varies in both Hebrew and English from its predecessor, The Gates of Prayer.

We are blessed, in this day and age, to have a wide variety of choices. In liberal Jewish movements, we eliminate or replace language that is troublesome. Even in some modern Orthodox circles, the meaning and intention of some of that old language is taking on new interpretations.

Engaging with the traditional prayers – perhaps in study, perhaps in worship – has its rewards. Our yearnings as human beings and the ethos of the Jewish people are captured in the prayer book. It hasn’t stayed static over the centuries. It’s shifted, changed, grown. As a book – more precisely, as a set of books that has evolved over time and across locations – the Siddur captures the heart and history of Jewish people. It’s remarkably bold, innovative, provocative, sensitive and illuminating. Its evolution, which continues in all strands of Judaism, is fascinating.

JSG: You made aliyah three years ago. Was your move intended to support or enhance your prayer writing, and, if so, how?

A: My aliyah has, indeed, supported my writing, but that was not my intention. My intention was simply to build a new life. The gifts I’ve received have gone beyond what I could have imagined before coming here.

JSG: Your blog is titled “To Bend Light.” What message do you want to convey with that title?

A: The name of the blog came out of an email conversation with a friend. I was trying to make a distinction between prayer, blessing and the mystic’s attempt to commune with God. We had no common language, so I created a set of analogies to hint at the distinction I was trying to make. I wrote: “Light is a universal metaphor for Divine energy, a universal symbol for holiness, truth, radiance, love. To pray is to summon Divine light. To bless is to attempt to bend that light toward holy purpose, including consolation, healing, joy and peace. Communion is the attempt to enter that light.” With the blog title, I’m attempting to communicate that my site is a place of spiritual intent.

JSG: When you speak of summoning “Divine light,” are you speaking metaphorically or do you believe in some transcendent or imminent cosmic energy?

A: It’s a metaphor for a belief that gifts continue to flow from God into the world. It’s a metaphor for a belief that creation was more than a one-time act. God continues to create the universe – some might say God actively maintains the created world – which is classic Jewish theology reaffirmed in our prayers. It’s a metaphor for a belief that our prayers matter, that they make a difference.

JSG: Is the light of which you speak a natural phenomenon, or more a panentheistic force like Arthur Green discusses or perhaps more similar to Mordecai Kaplan’s trans-natural power? Or is it akin to an emergent consciousness recently discussed by David Nelson in The Emergence of God?

A: Light, as I’m using it here, is a metaphor for the sustained and ongoing flow of God’s creative energy into the world. It’s a metaphor for the belief that God continues to engage with the created universe. Here is one more definition of prayer, this one from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ introduction to the Koren siddur: “G-d’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.”

JSG: You also speak about blessing as a process of bending light. How does this bending occur? Is the energy being bent, like starlight is bent by gravity, or is the person expressing the blessing somehow transformed?

A: This is part of the same metaphor, describing a belief that we can direct our prayers to holy purpose. Light represents the flow of God’s continued blessings into the world. ‘Bending light’ is a way to describe what happens when we bless one another.

JSG: Does this Devine light have any independent will or does it exist to be summoned and bent?

A: In Man’s Quest for G-d, Heschel put it this way: “Great is the power of prayer. To worship is to expand the presence of G-d in the world. G-d is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.” What Heschel says matches my own indescribable spiritual experience of the world. I have been in the presence of holiness; I have been in the presence of the divine. If I catch a glimpse, that is a gift.

JSG: Some argue that fundamentally prayer involves one of three attitudes: gratitude, wonder and petition. Do you agree?

A: Gratitude and wonder are attitudes. The associated actions are thanks and praise. Petition is an action. The associated attitude is hope, or perhaps desperation.

What you’re describing is a typology for categorizing prayers. There are many. Anne Lamott coined this: Help, Thanks, Wow. Her typology is consistent with the structure of the Jewish Amidah prayers, which are divided into shevach (praises), bakashot (requests) and hoda’ot (thanks). Here’s one Christian construct: Adoration, Confession, Supplication and Thanksgiving. This is one Catholic construct: Adoration, Expiation, Love, Petition and Thanksgiving. When I teach, I use this typology: Wow, Gimmie, Thanks and Oops. When we think about the Sh’ma, we need to add another category: ‘Creed.’

The core attitudes behind all types of prayer are love and faith.

JSG: Let’s look at some of your offerings. Many of your prayers are addressed to “Ancient One.” Are you speaking to the skygod of our ancestors?

A: When I use ‘Ancient One’ in a prayer I want to evoke the feeling of God as a deep well of understanding, the One whose wisdom spans beyond my ability to comprehend, the One who existed before the creation of time.

JSG: Then to whom or what are you speaking and what do you want to achieve by the use of that term?

A: Every name, title or description of God is an attempt to understand some facet of the incomprehensible. In my writing I use all sorts of names, titles and descriptions including: God, Adonai, Source, Rock, Creator, Maker, Shield, Consolation, Guide, Foundation, Holy One, Guardian, Ein Sof and Shechinah, for example. I never – never ever – use the terms like Lord, King or Ruler, for example.

JSG: Why don’t you just use the term “God”?

A: My prayer workshops typically include a discussion of our names for God. There are people who are uncomfortable addressing God with titles like Sovereign or Ancient One. Yet, put those titles in the context of a Yom Kippur prayer and the comfort level increases. More people are willing to use these titles in the context of atonement. There are those people who are uncomfortable with feminine or mystical names for God, like Shechinah. Yet, if you put those names in context of a healing prayer the comfort level increases. We seem to intuitively move to titles like Source, Well and Shechinah when praying from our vulnerability. For each individual prayer, I employ the names, titles and descriptions for God that seem most appropriate to the content and the mood of that prayer.

JSG: Do you think that using Ancient One is more or less appealing to the Nones who are a rapidly growing part of the Jewish population?

A: The Ancient One is also the Source is also the Shechinah is also the Shield, Consolation, Creator and Ein Sof and every other name, title or description of God. I’m not sure any of them appeal to people who are not religious.

Your attention to ‘Ancient One’ got me curious about my own work. I went back and checked my use of names for God in my work. Great exercise. Of my 550 prayers, 55 include ‘Ancient One’ as a description of God, but it’s almost always accompanied by one or more other names for God within the same prayer. Five of my prayers use ‘Ancient One’ as the only name or description God.

JSG: Do you believe that the Ancient One hears your prayers, and, if so, in what fashion?

A: God hears our prayers. This is a classic Jewish belief. Several of our prayers end, “Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”

JSG: What kind of response, if any, do you expect from Ancient One?

A: I don’t expect a response. I believe – I have faith – that prayers are heard, that prayers make a difference. I don’t need to experience a response, direct or indirect. Faith does not require an answer.

JSG: Well, if you do not expect Ancient One to respond, why not drop the reference to an addressee and just assert the value asserted in the prayer. For instance, why not just say something like “We fervently hope for peace and look forward to a time when all of humanity can live together with mutual respect” ?

A: We can recite poems for peace or sing songs about love and equality. I’ve done both. Songs are not prayers unless they somehow engage God, either in the language of the song or the intention of the one singing. Some of my own prayers do not mention God. No name. No title. No description. When I use them, I hold the intention of prayer. I hold the intention of communication with God. Others might read those prayers without that intention. Is it the same act? No.

JSG: Or, “Our ancestors appealed to Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, but we know that it is we who must strive to do godly work on earth.”

A: Doing God’s work on earth is beautiful. Repairing the world is done in partnership with God. We often pray for the willingness, courage and stamina to do that work. “God give me strength” is one of the most universal prayers.

JSG: In the introduction to a recent piece, titled Let God, you say that you want to let God into your life and move in the direction of holiness. What do you mean by that?

A: Holiness cannot be described or defined. Holiness must be experienced. Holiness is sighted. It can be sighted in the mundane, in the dirt, in acts of charity, in acts of kindness, in wrinkled hands and battered lives. It’s there, waiting to be seen, heard, touched. My hope and prayer is that I’m open and available to experience holiness in the world.

JSG: Do you think that holiness is achievable without reference to God?

A: Holiness itself is an emanation of God. Sometimes it’s a reflection of the godliness in us; sometimes it’s a reflection of Godself. Yes, holiness can be encountered without calling on God. Holiness cannot exist without God.

JSG: Similarly, in Praise for Healing, you speak of the energy of life flowing again into limbs, chest and heart. And you express thanks to “Source and Shelter” and “Healer and Guide” for having blessed you with days of joy and leading you back to “a life of wholeness and peace.” In what way do you envision the “Source” and “Healer” acting?

A: Your question comes down to this: How does prayer work? Let me tell you a story. My wife Ami z”l died of catastrophic brain damage as the result of a fall. At some point in the hospital, as we were waiting in her ICU room for her ultimate brain death to occur, one of my daughters said out loud that it bothered her to see all the blood in Ami’s flowing blond hair. Someone in hallway nearby must have overheard. A few minutes later, a nurse came into the room and washed Ami’s hair. A stranger came in to wash the hair of what was, essentially a dead woman, to ease our suffering. Were my daughter’s words a prayer? Was the nurse an answer? Was it just a coincidence? In that moment, each of us felt the presence of holiness. Something sacred transpired. We cannot describe it or duplicate it or even know on an empirical level if it happened. And it happened. Part of the power in prayer – the juice, the energy, the mojo – is in the mystery. Rabbi Sacks said that “prayer changes the world because it changes us.” I’ve had that experience, as well, but trying to understand how it works is an attempt to explain faith with reason. Reb Zalman put it this way: “We are asking the mind to understand that there are some things the mind cannot do. We cannot think our way to G-d. We cannot reach G-d by a safe step-by-step process.”

JSG: Could you have expressed the same gratitude, no doubt less poetically, but attributed the successful healing process to attending physicians, medical technology and pharmaceutical advances?

A: I’ve written prayers of gratitude for physicians, nurses and care givers, for example, prayers “For Medical Science” and “For Organ Donation.” These prayers praise the skills and the advancements achieved by medical professionals, thanking God for those gifts, asking that clinical skill be expanded and that advancements in medical science continue.

JSG: Over the last few years, how, if at all, has your understanding of the object of your words changed?

A: The object of my writing has not changed. My understanding and appreciation of the impact on myself and others has deepened. A few times each week I’ll hear from someone struggling with a difficult moment, or someone else who’s just experienced some joy or wonder, saying that a particular prayer I wrote provided the very words needed when they could not find their own.

I write prayers to fill voids in our liturgy. I write to give voice to our desires, hopes and yearnings. I write to strengthen my connection to God, to make myself a vessel for God’s blessings. I write to give others words they might not have. I write to inspire others to speak or write their own prayers, in their own words, with their own voices. I write as an act of personal healing. I write as an act of prayer.

JSG: How, if at all, has your writing style changed?

A: I use a variety of stylistic devices – call them poetic voices – to create mood in a prayer: the voice classic liturgist, the admonishing prophet, the seeking male, the spiritual traveler, the voice of prayer itself. Over time, these writing styles have emerged, deepened and changed. I’ve become more willing to blend those voices and to experiment with language.

When I moved to Israel I began a deeper study of Torah and classic liturgy, which has influenced the focus of some of my prayers, including incorporating Hebrew and references to text in some of my work. I continue to write prayers in response to natural disasters and man-made calamities.

I’ve also become more attune to writing both Jewish prayers – prayers that relate to Jewish theology, liturgy or holy days – and to writing prayers that can be used by people of all faiths, at times providing alternative language in the prayer.

JSG: Thanks, Alden. Good luck on your journey.

A: Thanks for your interest.